IAEA Unveils New International Radiation Warning Symbol
May 2007 (No. 4)
Environmental and Energy Law Update
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) have released a new radiation warning symbol to be used along with the black trefoil on a yellow triangle currently used as a radiation warning sign throughout the world. Although Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations do not yet require the symbol to be used on radiation sources in the United States, companies receiving equipment or scrap materials from other countries, or manufacturing and distributing equipment containing radioactive sources that will be used in other countries, should be aware of this new symbol and its recommended uses, and make their employees aware of the symbol.
The new symbol, shown below, has a red background and depicts a skull and crossbones and a person running away from radiating lines. The IAEA developed this new symbol to supplement, not replace, the existing radiation warning symbol, which it believed had “no intuitive meaning and little recognition beyond those educated in its significance.”1 The IAEA and ISO recommend that the new symbol be used with IAEA Category 1, 2, and 3 radiation sources. Category 1, 2, and 3 radiation sources are defined as sources capable of death or serious injury as a result of exposure to the sources. These sources include food irradiators, teletherapy machines for cancer treatment, industrial radiography units, and well-logging gauges.
The IAEA is an independent international organization within the United Nations family of organizations which promotes the safe, secure, and peaceful development and use of nuclear technologies. Made up of member states, the IAEA was originally established in 1957 as the international “Atoms for Peace” organization within the United Nations. The “Atoms for Peace” organization resulted from a U.N. resolution to develop a committee of member countries with atomic weapons programs to seek a peaceful solution to the atomic weapons race. In an address to the United Nations in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower recommended that the goal of that committee could be hastened by a commitment on the part of the member countries involved to contribute uranium and fissionable materials to a stockpile to be used by the world’s scientists and engineers to test and develop peaceful uses for atomic energy. The IAEA was created in response to that recommendation and the U.N.’s resolution.
The IAEA began developing this new symbol over five years ago in response to concerns arising from reports of injuries to those untrained in radiation safety who have encountered, and attempted to dismantle, large sources of radioactive material. The large radioactive sources to which the new symbol will be affixed are enclosed within metal or other protective housings to protect people from potentially harmful exposures to radiation. When these materials are properly used, stored, and maintained, they present no hazard to members of the public. However, there have been a number of deaths and injuries to people who have improperly handled equipment containing radioactive sources.
People inexperienced with handling radioactive sources have accidentally removed sealed radioactive sources from their protective housings while dismantling equipment to sell for scrap, or have failed to return sources to their shielded containers following use. For example, three individuals in Thailand died in 2000 after being exposed to a cobalt-60 source that fell out of a teletherapy head which they had taken from a warehouse where the heads were stored. The pieces of equipment were part of a teletherapy unit used for treating individuals with cancer. The affected individuals took the parts to a junkyard to break them into pieces that could be sold. The source fell out of one of the heads as they dismantled it.
The ISO and IAEA recommend that the new symbol be placed on the shielding for a sealed source or close to the point of potential access to the source. The new symbol should be visible to anyone who attempts to dismantle a device containing a Category 1, 2, or 3 radioactive source as a clear deterrent against further contact with the source. If there is no device cover, the symbol should be located on the outside housing of the device, in a discrete location that is visible prior to disassembly. It should not be visible on devices when they are being normally operated as manufactured and designed.
Currently, there is no requirement that NRC licensees display the new symbol on licensed radioactive sources. The NRC regulations require those licensed to handle radioactive materials to post the current international radiation symbol, known as the trefoil, which is shown below, in areas and on materials where a warning is necessary to protect people from undue exposure to radiation. The NRC has emphasized that the new symbol is a supplemental warning, not a replacement sign for the existing international symbol. The NRC and other federal agencies will be working with the IAEA on strategies to deploy the new radiation symbol on radioactive sources in the United States. The IAEA also intends to notify scrap yards, smelting operations, and other businesses where radioactive sources may be inadvertently sent about the new radiation warning symbol.
To avoid undue concern among workers who may encounter the new symbol, businesses that receive sealed sources from international suppliers, or handle and dispose of sealed sources of radioactive materials from overseas, should make their employees aware of the new symbol, and its purpose. The companies should reinforce training designed to help employees take appropriate precautions around radioactive sources, and address any concerns that the new symbol may raise. Further, U.S. manufacturers and distributors of equipment containing sealed radiation sources should investigate the need to include the new symbol on devices for use in other countries.
- IAEA, New Symbol Launched to Warn Public about Radiation Dangers, Staff Report, February 15, 2007.
- IAEA, The Radiological Accident in Samut Prakarn, Vienna, 2002.
- NRC, Fact Sheet on the New International Radiation Warning Symbol, March 2007.
- NRC, NRC Regulatory Issue Summary 2007-03, Ionizing Radiation Warning Symbol, March 1, 2007.
The purpose of this Environmental Law Update is to identify select developments that may be of interest to readers. The information contained herein is abridged and summarized from various sources, the accuracy and completeness of which cannot be assured. The Update should not be construed as legal advice or opinion, and is not a substitute for the advice of counsel.